Consider an iceberg. You see white peaks of ice above the surface of the water and assume that this all there is to the ice. Dive down beneath the surface and you’ll see the underbelly of ice that is 4-5 times larger than the ice visible on the surface.
From above, the iceberg looks inanimate, but deep under the waves, you’ll see a whole universe alive and kicking. This is exactly how the Internet is. Studies tell us that the visible Internet that most of us use constitutes just 1% of everything available on the World Wide Web. Scratch the surface and you’ll find your way down into the deep, dark crypt of the Internet.
Enter the subterranean world of the World Wide Web
The ‘hidden web’, ‘invisible web’, ‘deepnet’…although there are many names by which it is called, it is most famously known as the ‘darknet’.
The darknet is the layer of the Internet that is found deep in the recesses of the Internet, a place that is only accessible by specific software, networks, configurations, and authorizations. It is an overlay network that uses non-standard ports and protocols to operate; meaning, the darknet is not your run-of-the-mill Internet network.
Darknet was designed with the view to provide information in an encrypted environment, away from prying eyes. When created, it was meant to support military and political research. In fact, even to this day, most information-sensitive research conducted by Governments is conducted on the darknet.
The darknet became ideal for research because of the anonymity it provided users. Unlike surfaceweb (the part of the web which is visible and available to the public through standard web engines) and clearnet (the unencrypted and standard Internet network), the darknet is subject to a layer of security and encryption that allows users to conduct transactions without the worry of being monitored.
Standard, unencrypted networks can be easily indexed and made available to the general public through search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing. But darknet is encrypted, meaning it can’t be indexed by search engines and can only be found and used after the installation of specific software.
The most commonly used darknet software is Tor. It is a free, anonymous software which can be used to shield the user’s Internet activity from being monitored and tracked by external agencies. The Tor is similar to a Firefox browser, where users can search for whatever information they want, but with one difference – it conceals the user’s location and Internet activity.
The software connects to multiple relays (a computer that allows many users to connect to it and search the web) simultaneously and enters the open web. Every action that is performed is wiped clean by the software, making it almost impossible for monitoring agencies to track who you are and what you’re doing on the net.
The dark underbelly of the Internet
Unfortunately, software like Tor has made it extremely easy for antisocial elements to stir up trouble and engage in criminal activity on the World Wide Web. A 2016 study on Tor usage showed that a whopping 8.1% of users indulge in the illegal drug sale, 6.3% in credit card fraud, 2.7% in religious and terrorist extremism, and 2.3% in illegitimate pornography.
The darknet gives birth to black markets, the most famous being the Silk Road – the world’s most well-known online platform to sell illegal drugs.
Founded in February 2011, Silk Road operated under the pseudonym "Dread Pirate Roberts". From fake driver’s licenses to hallucinogenic drugs, the platform sold thousands of products, 70% of which was illegal across the world.
Founder Ross William Ulbricht also started a sister site called The Armory, which indulged in arms trafficking. Both sites were eventually shut down by the FBI and Ulbricht and his teams were convicted with eight charges and sentenced to prison without the possibility of parole.
The darknet is a Pandora’s Box. Once open, it can lead users down into the dangerous world of the darkweb. But, at the end of the day, it is up to the users to use the darknet responsibly and not allow antisocial elements to infiltrate our online activities.